In this installment, the old auto row building at 517 East Pike lets us look at what is, what was, and what could have been. We’ll even get a peak at what is soon to be — so metaphysical!
Today it’s best known for Kaladi Brothers Coffee and Gay City Health. The space next to them was an interior store until recently, and now it’s being remodeled for the coffee shop and clinic to move into bigger digs.
Less well known is that the upstairs is home to building owner Chip Ragen‘s landscape architecture firm Ragen & Associates. Chip dropped a comment on the recent Re:Take Social Network of Auto Row and mentioned his building. A guided tour ensued.
The second floor still shows signs that it was a mechanic garage. The floors are made of concrete. An old Alenlube grease pump is attached to the ceiling. A pipe runs through the skylight, used to vent exhaust fumes from tubes to joints spaced throughout the wide open room.
Up in the crawl space is an amazing remnant of auto row. Car parts litter the rafters, trapped overhead until they are someday cut out. Ragen & Associates sales manager Craig Nixon sent photos off to car enthusiast friends. They recognized the front grill from a 1929 Ford.
Things get more confusing downstairs. In the back of the new Kaladi space, a set of windows look out on the bottom of fifteen feet of dirt. Belmont rises steeply from Pike Street here, and the hillside was filled in on the back of the building at some point to make the parking lot.
Head downstairs to Gay City Health and things get weirder. We all know the story of Underground Seattle, and even if you haven’t done the tour you’ve certainly noticed the glass blocks in the sidewalk in Pioneer Square, often lit from below. Down there the street level was raised after the buildings were constructed. And that left empty space under the sidewalks.
Well, have you ever noticed the blocks outside of Kaladi? Look under the tables, chairs and planter, and you’ll see those same blocks.
Also take a look next to the curb like Chip’s doing, below, and you’ll see the door for a freight entrance. And man, the foundation is seriously overbuilt down there.
For the last hundred years we’ve all been stumped about what the eff the architect was thinking. Now with the digitized Seattle Times all is revealed. The answer is quite simple and a bit cool.
In 1909, McLaughlin Realty Company started construction for a new eight-story “bachelor apartment” building called The Michigan at the southeast corner of Belmont and Pike. They ran this image when it was first announced, saying that the “foundation and basement are about completed.”
That’s the elegant explanation for the out-of-character basement and sidewalk. This will probably come up as an argument for the higher height limits in Pike/Pine being considered now. Sure, if it’s built all in brick, with 185 small studio-pods, and sports a communal billiard room, rooftop garden, gym, and Turkish bath. Maybe we could forgive eight floors for that.
McLaughlin ran the image in February and May. Then suddenly in August they ran a photo of a near-complete “Motor Building”. They were looking for a tenant for a hurriedly built auto row show room. McLaughlin read the changing winds on Pike Street perfectly. Two days later San Francisco firm J. W. Leavitt announced plans to expand their Willys Overland business to Seattle. They told the Times that they were in the market to buy a building. It was a perfect match.
Overland Model 38 from the 1910 catalog
Let me indulge in a short aside. Willys was famous in my family for Jeeps. My dad had a CJ5 for camping and hunting, pulling stuff and just tooling around town. He picked up an old Willys model, maybe a CJ3A, to tinker with later on. I learned to drive on my mom’s Datsun, but my real driving test was getting behind the wheel of those Jeeps.
Of course the Jeep was invented for World War Two. Back in 1910, John North Willys was only two years into his makeover of the nearly-failed Overland Motors. He was astoundingly successful. Leavitt was lucky enough to have the Pacific Coast distribution rights, with stores in SF, Portland and now Seattle.
At the start of 1909, “Overland” in the Seattle Times referred to the Overland Pacific passenger train operated by Southern Pacific. By the end of the year it began to be used equally for the car. After the dealership opened, the train line was a distant second to the automobile. According to ever-reliable Wikipedia, Willys Overland was second in sales only to Ford in the period leading up to the end of World War One in 1918. Who knows how many cars passed through these doors at 517 East Pike.
Arthur Dawson, ST 1/27/1917
A man who could account for part of it was Arthur Dawson. Willys Overland moved him up from San Francisco in 1916 where he was managing a Cadillac dealership. He worked for Willys for a couple years, then headed over to sell Hupmobiles and Chalmers cars at the Patten dealership we saw last time. And then after a couple of other gigs he ended up selling Templar
s at Greater Motors, from the Re:Take before that. Dawson is the perfect illustration of the social network on auto row.
Each building on auto row has a unique story to tell. 517 East Pike shows its auto roots, but it is also holding onto the fleeting memory of when it almost became the tallest building on Pike Street.
In case you missed them, here are the last few Re:Takes on CHS:
- The tunnel from Capitol Hill to downtown that never happened
- The social network of Capitol Hill’s Auto Row, 1921 and 2012
- Life at 12th and Union, 1957 and 2011
Local history expert Rob Ketcherside shares his vision of the past and present with his Re:Take series of works on CHS and other Seattle sites.